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The war of ideas
Fighting aggression abroad and repression at home; plus, common sense on Beacon Hill, and Golfgate follies

THIS IS A high-water mark for President Bush and his neo-imperialist foreign policy. If the war in Iraq didn’t go quite as smoothly as its most enthusiastic backers had predicted, it was, nevertheless, an easy victory.

And despite all the unanswered questions about the aftermath — from the possibility of renewed terrorist attacks to the administration’s hostile stance toward Syria and Iran (the rhetoric regarding Syria, at least, has been toned down in recent days) — it is indisputable that those Iraqis whose lives were not destroyed by the Anglo-American invasion now have a legitimate chance at freedom.

That war was waged despite worldwide protest represents a setback for the anti-war movement. It is now time to move on to the next phase.

On foreign policy, the progressive course is to work as quickly as possible — with the Iraqi people themselves taking the lead — to transform Iraq into a constitutional, secular, democratic, self-governing society. Frayed relationships with our allies also must be rebuilt. Those who would abandon the United Nations must be made to understand that there is no alternative to the organization, even though their position has some merit.

On the domestic front, renewed efforts must be made to fight repression at home. Attorney General John Ashcroft, already riding high on the strength of the post-9/11 USA Patriot Act, is now readying Patriot Act II, which would further restrict our freedom and expand government secrecy. Here’s an idea for a potent symbolic crusade: liberals should push to have the despicable J. Edgar Hoover’s name removed from the Justice Department’s headquarters. That would put Ashcroft on notice as to how opponents of liberty are remembered.

And though street demonstrations can be an effective way to rally supporters, they have been notably ineffective at changing hearts and minds. Witness the president’s "favorability ratings," to use the pollsters’ inelegant term, currently hovering around 70 percent. Though that’s a good 20 points lower than his father’s ratings after Gulf War I, and though his own job-approval ratings were stuck in the mid 50s as recently as a few weeks ago, that’s still an impressive number for a president in the midst of a recession.

This is a battle of ideas, and it’s going to have to be waged with more-complex tools than no blood for oil signs — in think tanks, on the op-ed pages, and on television’s ubiquitous talking-heads shows, forums that conservatives and hawks have learned to master.

The challenge ahead is laid out in three pieces in this week’s Phoenix. Dan Kennedy interviews eight experts on what should happen next in Iraq and with US foreign policy, while Richard Byrne and David Valdes Greenwood report on the future of the anti-war movement in the face of the White House’s obsessive quest for security.

There is a link between the warlike, unilateral policies Bush is pursuing abroad and the repression he encourages at home. That link is a frightening, arrogant self-righteousness that brooks no criticism and sneers at dissent.

The war in Iraq is over. The war of ideas has just begun.

FROM BEACON HILL last week came a rare bit of common sense. Rather than continuing to slash education and programs on which our most vulnerable citizens depend, some legislators are talking about borrowing to get through this painful but temporary economic downturn.

According to an account in last Friday’s Boston Globe, the legislature may borrow as much as $1 billion to cover expenses for the fiscal year that begins on July 1. With an estimated budget deficit of $3 billion, that would still leave two-thirds of the problem to go. But it would be a good start, and House Speaker Tom Finneran deserves credit for reportedly being willing to consider it. The budget proposal that Finneran unveiled on Tuesday did not call for borrowing, although it would restructure the state’s existing debt. But there is still time, and Mark Montigny, who chairs the Senate Committee on Long-Term Debt and Capital Expenditures, is a strong proponent of the idea.

Even conservative groups such as the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation and the Beacon Hill Institute are open to the idea of taking out a bond to cover at least some of the deficit. For instance, the foundation has suggested that if the state borrowed $500 million and spread out payments over seven years, the cost would amount to just $100 million a year at current interest rates.

So it was telling that the Romney administration immediately took a negative view, with Eric Kriss, the governor’s chief budget official, saying in a Globe interview that borrowing would be "completely irresponsible" and "a gimmick." Kriss’s response was predictably political. The reality is that it would be irresponsible to cut rather than borrow as long as there is a reasonable expectation that revenues will recover in the years ahead.

In fact, it is generally accepted among economists that deficit spending — a/k/a short-term borrowing — is an effective tool for governments as well as individuals seeking to smooth out bumps in the road. There is a reasonable expectation that, in the relative near term, revenues will again be available both to pay down the debt and return to a balanced budget, if not necessarily a surplus.

In an op-ed piece for the Boston Herald on April 14, economist Ed Moscovitch showed that the tax cuts of the 1990s were paid for with ever-increasing revenues from capital-gains taxes. Now that the stock market has gone bust, the bill for those cuts has come due. By borrowing now, the legislature can buy itself time not just for the economy to recover, but also for rethinking the state’s tax structure — including Governor Mitt Romney’s blithe campaign promise to cut the income tax to five percent.

There is no shame in the state’s current fiscal predicament. On Monday, the New York Times reported that the states are facing "their worst financial crises since World War II," and are struggling with the task of cutting a collective $100 billion. Getting through this will require elected officials to act like adults. Legislators are signaling their willingness. How about the governor?

MARX WROTE that history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. In the matter of Golfgate — free golf for a certain privileged few at the municipal course at Franklin Park — farce is giving way to outright buffoonery.

Mayor Tom Menino’s boldfaced (though unnecessary) lie about taking advantage of free rounds was hardly the end of the world. Indeed, a reasonable argument can be made that the mayor and the parks commissioner should be able to play for free in order to bring in guests and show off the impressive turnaround of an inner-city golf course that not too long ago was in terrible disrepair. Still, the mayor’s untruthfulness said something interesting about his instincts when he comes under criticism.

But the latest development — the reaction of some black ministers who’ve lost their free-golf privileges — would be a hoot if it weren’t so sad. The Reverend James Allen, who’d been on a waiting list, told the Globe that it was hard to escape the conclusion that it was "a racial thing." Seriously. Racism is a serious issue, and Allen’s making a mockery of it, as if free golf were some form of affirmative action, is unworthy. Perhaps he should have been arguing for free tee times for poor inner-city kids — of all races — so they could have access to an otherwise financially forbidding sport.

But perhaps best of all was the Reverend Brian Gearin, who was quoted as saying, "It would have been nice. But I believe God is in control. If it was meant to be, it would have happened. If you believe God is in control of everything, you’re able to take the good with the bad."

Nice to see that the good reverend’s got it all in perspective.

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Issue Date: April 25 - May 1, 2003
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